Zoning or prejudice?

Woodland planners unanimously approved Oak Leaf Respite, but then things went wrong

After his son started hearing voices, Albert Weiss had a vision.

After his son started hearing voices, Albert Weiss had a vision.

Photo By Larry Dalton

There are some people who, when faced with personal tragedy, go within themselves, retreat or give up. Then there are others, like Albert Weiss, who see their struggles as part of a larger need and try to do something about it.

In Weiss’ case, tragedy struck shortly after his son, Aaron, came home from serving a four-year tour in the Navy in December 1996. Then 23, Aaron had plans to enroll in American River College to study music and had begun working at an area farm, where he drove a tractor and operated other farming equipment. But one month after returning to his parents’ home in Woodland, Aaron’s life turned upside-down when he experienced his first bout with mental illness.

“I started hearing voices and seeing things,” Aaron, now 30, said in a recent interview. “It was scary; I didn’t know what was happening.”

Following his son’s diagnosis of chronic paranoid schizophrenia—a biologically based brain disorder characterized by distortions in thought, sight and sound—Albert said, “The only way to describe the fallout is total devastation. I didn’t know what to do.”

Slowly, however, members of the family made their way, learning all they could about the illness and focusing their efforts on securing the best treatment for Aaron. They also involved themselves in family-to-family education and support groups through the Yolo County chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Along the way, Albert said, it became apparent that Woodland, where he has been a lifelong resident, and Yolo County as a whole, had a dearth of housing options for people like his son.

The combined effects of good case management and finding the right medication, Aaron explained, has meant the abatement of the most troubling symptoms of his illness (he no longer experiences auditory or visual hallucinations). Aaron said he feels ready to assume more independence and move out of his parents’ home, but he is concerned that without the right living environment, his hard-won stability might crumble.

“You’re not a child, you know?” Aaron said of people who live with such illnesses. “You have something to offer—to a job, to friends, to the community. But it’s still about finding that delicate balance between how much stimulus you can take from the outside and how much you can be alone, without isolating. So, it would be good to live in a place where you have that support.”

Though Woodland has no such facilities, Pine Tree Gardens in neighboring Davis has 29 clients (split between two homes) and a two-year waiting list.

Last summer, Albert decided the situation needed to change. He purchased property, in the 100 block of Lincoln Avenue, that included a house and a detached 1,000-square-foot accessory building. Renovations would add a second story onto the main structure, for a combined area of 3,365 square feet, and turn the detached building into a multipurpose hall for classroom, recreation and meeting space.

Albert’s plan: to open a state-licensed adult residential facility serving 14 Woodland residents living with mental illness. In addition to providing medication monitoring and oversight to residents, Albert envisioned a program model based on Pine Tree Gardens, where residents would participate in life-skills programs, receive job coaching and other case-management services, and be encouraged to integrate into the community. Residents would have a 10 p.m. curfew and be required to maintain both their medication schedule and their appointments with county mental-health staff.

“If not me, who?” Albert said of the proposed project. “If not now, when? If not here, where?”

The Lincoln Avenue site, at the corner of McKinley Avenue, was perfect, Albert said, because of its close proximity to public transportation, shopping, entertainment and employment opportunities.

“These are people’s sons and daughters,” Albert said. “With proper treatment and support, they can live productive and fulfilling lives. We need that opportunity in Woodland.”

Policymakers, advocates and mental-health experts at the state level back up Albert’s assertion that housing and recovery go hand-in-hand.

In its 2000 report, “Being There: Making a Commitment to Mental Health,” California’s Little Hoover Commission reported that stable housing improves mental-health outcomes by reducing stress, decreasing victimization and allowing people to participate in other treatment opportunities, including employment.

In its report to Governor Gray Davis and the Legislature, the commission said it discovered that the state spends billions of dollars dealing with the consequences of untreated mental illness—rather than spending that money wisely on adequate services.

“We pay for jail space and court costs that we incur because mental-health clients do not receive care and treatment,” commissioners wrote. “We pay for redevelopment and struggle to revitalize our inner cities, but we pretend we cannot do anything to keep people with mental-health needs from sleeping in the doorways of downtown homes and businesses.

“Housing is often the linchpin of mental-health services,” commissioners said, “yet many of California’s communities struggle to provide adequate, affordable housing.”

As Albert and his many supporters soon would discover, the struggle to site Oak Leaf Respite centered not on the merits of the proposed facility, but on fear.

Though state law allows the opening of a six-bed adult residential facility in any established neighborhood without local government approval, Albert had to ask the city for a zoning variance to site a 14-bed home. He gained unanimous approval for his request from the city’s planning commission in November 2002, despite protests from a number of neighbors who claimed the action violated the city’s Neighborhood Preservation Zone designed to limit density in the area of Lincoln and McKinley avenues.

“We came to the conclusion that Woodland didn’t have a facility for mentally ill people, and we desperately needed one,” said Woodland Planning Commission Chairman Steve Barzo. “We didn’t see that it would impair property values or damage the neighborhood in any way.”

Barzo, like other commissioners and Albert’s supporters, said he saw a disconnect in the professed policies of the state—which encourage integration of services and treatment of the mentally ill in the communities in which they live—and the reality of politics at the local level.

“Frankly, I think when you mention mentally handicapped, people have an image of them. Unfortunately, it’s a false image,” Barzo said. “It’s like a feeding frenzy. The neighbors thought there would be a problem in the area, but we didn’t see it that way because Davis has [Pine Tree Gardens] right in a residential area, and they’ve had no problems.”

But angry residents, led by neighbor and Sacramento police officer Jeffrey Naff, appealed the commission’s decision to the Woodland City Council and, during a four-and-a-half-hour special hearing December 4, proceeded to offer a plethora of specific fears and complaints, most of which had nothing to do with zoning issues.

“I’m not going to feel safe unless I have a shotgun by my side,” said Eric St. John, referring to clients not yet living in the proposed home.

Other residents used the forum to complain that their neighborhood was already under stress, citing a Halloween-night shooting that left two dead on nearby Oak Avenue—an incident not involving any Woodland resident with a mental illness, police say.

Naff, however, said his concerns centered on his experiences as a police officer in Sacramento, and predicted a “great impact on density, traffic, noise and air quality, specifically smoking outside the house, and possibly public drunkenness.

“There will probably be higher calls for service for [Woodland’s] police department, which is already understaffed, and probably a lot of loitering and blight issues to come with this project that we are concerned about.”

But that scenario is contradicted by Capt. Steven Pierce of the Davis Police Department, a 17-year veteran who characterized the department’s relationship with Pine Tree Gardens as “good to excellent.”

Albert Weiss at the site of what would have been Oak Leaf Respite.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“The staff has always been very supportive, and the residents very cooperative,” Pierce said of the facility, which has been in operation for 16 years. “We get very few calls for service there; the ones we do get are the same ones we get in any neighborhood. From our perspective, we have very little interaction with them, and that’s good.

“People with mental illness may have more open idiosyncrasies, but they’re not violent,” Pierce said. “We haven’t had any incidences of sexual assaults or violence, so those fears have not manifested themselves here. Our experience is that the people we deal with who are mentally ill are far more likely to be the victims of crime than the suspects because they’re more trusting.”

Two neighborhood meetings conducted by Albert prior to both the planning-commission and city-council hearings were sparsely attended, and the offer to tour Pine Tree Gardens extended to both area residents and councilmembers by Pine Tree’s executive director, Melissa Culloty, in an effort to allay fears, had no takers.

The latter fact disappointed but did not surprise many supporters of the project.

“They were invited so they could become educated and learn about the project,” said Lynn Smith, a longtime Woodland resident involved in local and state groups assisting the mentally ill. “They didn’t want to learn or know. They had already made up their minds based on misinformation and stigma. How sad! I wondered [while watching the hearing] if Oak Leaf Respite had been a home for persons with brain damage from stroke or accident, if there would have been opposition.

“It appears the issue of density is merely a politically correct smoke screen for politically incorrect prejudice and discrimination.”

A host of supporters, including then-Assemblywoman Helen Thomson, D-Davis (now a Yolo County supervisor); Yolo County Supervisors Lois Wolk and Tom Stallard; Esther Castillo, director of the Yolo County Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services; and Cass Sylvia, Yolo County public administrator and guardian, submitted letters and public testimony supporting the siting of the facility, as did Woodland parents of adult children with mental illness.

“You know there’s a desperate need here,” said Blake Temple, a father whose son lives at Pine Tree Gardens. “To have someone like Al Weiss who is willing to do this … he’s a miracle for this community.”

In a landmark report on mental health, the U.S. surgeon general warned in 1999 that stigma is “the most formidable obstacle” to future progress in the arena of mental illness and mental health. “Stigma discourages people from getting help when they need it. It dehumanizes individuals. It contributes to a lack of investment in the mental-health-care system, with catastrophic costs and consequences.”

In Yolo County, which has a population just under 200,000, the opportunities for housing are slim. Besides the two facilities that make up Pine Tree Gardens in Davis, there is the six-bed Plum Tree Gardens board-and-care facility in West Sacramento and an eight-bed facility in Esparto. There are no state-licensed facilities in either Woodland or Winters.

By contrast, neighboring Sacramento County has more than 100 board-and-care homes for adults with mental illness, though housing options are still about one-third of those available to adults with developmental disabilities.

“Certainly, the stigma is much greater for mentally ill patients than developmentally disabled,” said Castillo. “The case in Woodland is a perfect example. Their expectations of people with Down syndrome, for example, is very different than with the unknown of mental illness. As we saw in the council meeting, we really have a long way to go in terms of educating people to break down the stigma.”

With an average of 200 new clients coming into county mental-health offices for services each year, Castillo said, the need for supportive housing, such as Oak Leaf Respite, is only going to increase.

“What opponents don’t understand is that these people are in their community already,” Castillo said. “They’re in the grocery store. They’re on the bus next to you. The question is: Do you want them in a good living situation where they have access to support and treatment and will remain stable, or are you going to deny that and then force them to a higher level of care by forcing them out on the street where they’ll decompensate?”

While saying time and again that Albert’s “heart was in the right place” and “acknowledging the overwhelming need” for such a facility in Woodland, city-council members decided unanimously to overturn the planning commission’s decision, thus nixing project plans for the Lincoln Avenue site.

Regardless of the vitriol expressed by neighbors during the meeting, Woodland Vice Mayor Matt Rexroad maintains today that the council made the only decision it could, based on the zoning.

“If Al, who is a fabulous person, had put that in another part of the city that was zoned for [multi-family] dwellings, I would have supported it—and still would,” said Rexroad, who expressed disappointment in some residents whose reasons for opposing the project had nothing to do with zoning or density issues.

“Every local government has to deal with this attitude,” Rexroad said. “But, really, this mindset of ‘that’s a fabulous facility—you should locate it somewhere else’ falls on deaf ears to me. We’d never have recycling plants if we allowed that, right?

“The case of Oak Leaf was a zoning issue,” Rexroad continued. “It was irrelevant to me who would be living there. I would have voted the same way if it would have been a proposed home for beauty queens, good Samaritans or saints.”

Rexroad added that his decision also was spurred by the belief that residents already in the neighborhood had a “reasonable expectation” when they bought their property that it would continue to “look pretty much the same as when they moved there.”

The vice mayor added that Albert could have saved himself time and frustration had he first searched for a properly zoned piece of land for his project instead of purchasing property with the hopes of securing a variance.

“I once asked Al how he would feel if we approved a variance to allow for a skyscraper to be put next to his place on McKinley,” Rexroad continued. “Al said, ‘If it was to help the mentally ill, I’d say OK.’ And you understand where he’s coming from. He was banking on the need outweighing the rules of the zone he was in.”

But many still have doubts about whether the council’s real concern was zoning or placating residents.

“The people who were against this, I think, were scared,” Aaron said. “But what I’d want to say to them is: ‘Don’t be scared of us.’ When you’re on your meds, you don’t end up doing things like Andrea Yates [the woman convicted last year of drowning her children]. And [in] a home like this, if you do forget to take your medication, there’s someone there to remind you.

“What people forget, or don’t realize,” Aaron continued, “is that we all have dreams. I have dreams … and being in an environment where you see other people doing good, it makes you want to do good. That’s what [Oak Leaf] would be. People just need to be educated.”

Barzo, of the city’s planning commission, still defends his board’s original decision.

“Again, we didn’t feel that eight additional people was enough to justify not granting the variance,” Barzo said, referring to the difference between a six-bed home that needed no city approval and a 14-bed home that required a variance for density purposes.

“A good mental-health facility is a quality-of-life issue for the city and will only increase the community’s quality of life,” Barzo added. “To turn a blind eye to the needs of a segment of our population is to treat them like second-class citizens.”

Although discouraged, Albert said he has not given up on the idea of Oak Leaf becoming a reality. Finding a new location, extracting himself from the financial obligations of the Lincoln Avenue property and completing the application process to acquire his 501(c)(3) nonprofit status will take time and money, however.

“We need help to make this a reality,” Albert said. “I’m hoping that people will look at their sons and daughters and think, ‘If this happened to them, where would they go?’ and see the time to get this done is now—not tomorrow or next year, but now.”